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November 29th, 2006

Myriad / incidences vs. incidents

by Barbara Wallraff

Peter Harman, of Crested Butte, Colo., writes: “I learned that ‘myriad’ should be used as a synonym for ‘many’ (as in ‘there are myriad stars’) and should never be followed by ‘of’ (as in ‘a myriad of stars’). I was told that that situation calls for the word ‘plethora.’ I commonly see what I regard as incorrect usage of ‘myriad’ in reputable publications. Are both usages correct? No matter what the answer, I will never say ‘myriad of,’ because it is too deeply ingrained for me to change now.”

Dear Peter: All sorts of superstitions exist about “myriad,” and I’ve never understood why. Did the person who taught you that “rule” ever explain why the word shouldn’t be followed by “of” -- why it can’t be a noun? “A myriad of stars” isn’t confusing; the usage is well established; and in fact the noun is older than the adjective, though both uses have been with us for centuries.

“Myriad” comes from Latin and ancient Greek, in which it literally meant “a unit of 10,000.” But it was often used to mean any very large number. Think of it as, roughly, the classical equivalent of “zillion”: We can say either “there are a zillion stars” or “zillions of stars.” (I admit it would sound wrong to say “a zillion of stars,” though “look at the stars -- there are a zillion of them” is fine.) As for “plethora,” it is a noun and only a noun: “a plethora of stars.” It, too, comes from Latin and Greek. But it originally meant “an excess,” and not in a positive sense.

Over the years people have invented a plethora of arbitrary rules about English usage. I think it’s a shame when these get jumbled up in people’s minds with the zillions of distinctions that are worth making. Why not strike a blow for common sense and start saying “a myriad of” every chance you get?

Patricia T. Leadley, of Lake Pleasant, N.Y., writes: “I often see the word ‘incidences’ where the word ‘incidents’ would be correct. For example, recently I read, ‘It’s a shame to hear about Albany High School and how it is portrayed as a bleak setting with an endless stream of horrible violent incidences.’Please comment.”

Dear Patricia: You’re all too right: “incidence” is being used in all sorts of loopy ways. An “incident” is an event, often an unpleasant one: “a violent incident.” So a series of these events would be “incidents”: “violent incidents.” “Incidence” usually means something like “frequency” or “extent,” as in “The incidence of violence is high.” And “incidences” is the plural of that word, as in “The two schools have comparable incidences of violence.”

So all of the following phrases, which I found in recent news reports, are wrong: “in two other separate incidences,” “we’re not certain these incidences involve the same suspect,” “the more recent increase of incidences of theft,” and “a few members’ frequently recurring incidences of unexcused absences.” In the first two, “incidences” should read “instances.” And in the last two, the word is just wasting space. They could perfectly well read “the more recent increase in theft” and “a few members’ frequent unexcused absences.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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